Credit: Art Rickerby/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office with his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

The Cold War

Although John F. Kennedy reached out to the jailed Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1960 presidential campaign, civil rights were not a major concern for the Kennedy administration. Rather, Cold War politics were front and center. Staunchly anti-communist, John F. Kennedy used his inaugural address to speak about spreading freedom throughout the world — a goal contradicted by the large number of black Americans still lacking basic freedoms and civil rights.

The Freedom Rides did not come at a convenient time for the administration. The president was still smarting from the failed April 17 Bay of Pigs invasion, in which a group of U.S.—sponsored Cuban exiles had attempted to land by boat and overthrow Castro's regime, and he was preoccupied with preparing for his upcoming Vienna summit with Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev on June 3, 1961. In the interim came headlines and televised images of a burning bus in Anniston, AL and savage beatings in Birmingham, AL.

Credit: Montgomery Advertiser Headline from the Montgomery Advertiser

"For the Kennedy brothers, domestic affairs were an afterthought, and the Civil Rights Movement was an afterthought beyond an afterthought," said activist and NAACP leader Julian Bond in his interview for Freedom Riders. "Now all of a sudden the whole world was watching."

Communist nations were quick to see the propaganda value of the violence accompanying Freedom Rides, especially for the populations of newly independent nations in Africa and Asia. The story of the Freedom Riders was broadcast around the world. The Kennedy administration found itself on the defensive. In response, Robert F. Kennedy delivered an address for the Voice of America claiming that great progress had been made on the issue of race relations, and that a person of color might one day be president of the United States. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the administration worked with leaders in the Civil Rights Movement and white segregationist authorities to resolve the crisis with a minimum of violence and prevent the Freedom Riders from generating a fresh crop of headlines that might divert attention from the President's international agenda.

The back burner issue of civil rights had collided with the urgent demands of Cold War realpolitik. From this point forward, the events of the Civil Rights Movement would play out on an international as well as a domestic stage.

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